by Diane Roberts | August 28, 2020

How the Pandemic Opened a Window to Diane Roberts’ Past

Our columnist chronicles a week in the life of a strict coronavirus quarantiner.

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Diane Roberts has been spending her quarantine days admiring the extraordinary in her own backyard. Photography by iStock

Sunday, July 26th, 8:35 pm

There’s no moon tonight. I’m gazing due south in the soft darkness. Ahead of me, the constellation Scorpius rises over the young cedars. I raise my binoculars to Antares, Scorpius’s sullen red alpha star, a supergiant 12 times the size of the sun, which experts say might explode soon—that is in the next 10,000 years or so. I scan the sky higher up to the Milky Way, stretched across the sky like a gauze scarf shot with silver and lilac. A moving shadow near a tall stand of slash pine diverts my attention. A raccoon, probably. I refocus on the deep quiet and finally, there they are, elongated dots of celery green light winking on and off, flitting here and there in front of the trees.

Not that I’ve ever called them “fireflies.” They’re known as “lightning bugs” in these parts. They’re not flies of any variety, of course; they’re bioluminescent beetles. When their bodies pull in oxygen a chemical reaction begins, igniting the glowing junk in the little bug’s trunk. I want a better look at those dancing critters under the late summer stars, so I creep forward slowly and open the window.

Wait, you thought I was actually outside? Out in the elements, trying to breathe air that’s not been even mildly conditioned? Air as hot as the inside of a mastiff’s mouth? That’s hilarious. Then there’s the small matter of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Florida is one of the ‘rona’s favorite venues. That virus is everywhere out there, riding around in the mucus membranes of maskless young people jostling each other at illicit house parties, nestling in the innocent spittle of kindergartners or maybe just lurking on a doorknob. I don’t leave the house unless forced to, and then only in a hazmat suit I made myself out of a couple of 33-gallon, black garbage can liners and my brother’s old football helmet.

It’s not like you can’t have adventures right in your own domicile. Yeah, I know, it’s not quite the same as back in the Before Times, when you could hop on a plane for New York to check out the latest at the Museum of Modern Art or road trip to Key West to hang with the polydactyl Hemingway cats and hoist a beer or five at the Green Parrot, which A.) I hear is closed because of the dang Plague and B.) Wouldn’t be that fun wearing a mask anyway. So quit whining and start looking at your crib (preferably wiped down with Lysol and Clorox) with the fresh eyes of a micro-adventurer. Your home is a collection of objets d’art! Your yard is a wildlife habitat!

I don’t leave the house unless forced to, and then only in a hazmat suit I made myself out of a couple of 33-gallon, black garbage can liners and my brother’s old football helmet.
— Diane Roberts

I’m ready. I have field glasses, forceps, a case of Sonoma Cabernet, low-salt peanuts, a small cache of Belgian chocolate, a freezer full of homemade tomato sauce, four bags of Trader Joe’s pappardelle, a large spatula, a star atlas, bug spray, a military-grade Maglite, three gallons of bleach and many bottles of hand sanitizer. I’m a little worried about the TP situation; I am down to two rolls of Charmin. The last time I dared venture out to the store, three weeks ago, the only thing left in the toilet tissue and paper towel aisle was one individual roll of something labeled “Industrial Use Only.”

Not encouraging.

Tuesday, 9 am

I fling open the door to the small guest room closet, the one I actively ignore. That closet’s a mystery, by which I mean I have either forgotten or repressed all knowledge of what’s in there. But isn’t that the point of guest room closets, a place to stash things you never think about and yet, can’t quite bring yourself to discard? I switch on the Maglite’s high beam. A fringed purple shoulder bag from 9th grade that’s a trifle mildewed; a blue wool coat, thick as a sofa cushion, that my mother bought at Bergdorf Goodman in 1957, now cratered with moth holes but such an elegant trapeze cut; and on the dusty floor before me, two pairs of Candies ™ c. 1982, almost perfectly preserved in their molded plastic glory, the four-inch heels miraculously unblemished. They will probably survive a nuclear winter or Florida’s final catastrophic sinking into the sea, whichever comes first. As a co-ed, I wore those shoes with a denim skirt, a pink Izod shirt, and a string of pearls to totter across the Florida State University campus—back when we actually attended classes in person, in the same room with the professor and everything.

You young people today can scarcely imagine.

I avert my gaze from the peach polyester bridesmaid’s dress I wore in Mary-Sarah Pipkin’s wedding in 1983, lest its epic hideousness turns me, Medusa-like, to stone, and check out a pair of Laura Ashley Elizabethan breeches in brown moiré, which I bought because, well, Princess Diana had similar ones. Of course, she was tall and long-legged, so when she wore breeches, she looked like a Shakespeare heroine disguised as a boy. When I wore them, I fear I looked like I’d inflated a fancy balloon from waist to knee. Crammed in next to the breeches, a slew of tiny flowered dresses with ruffles in startling places, dating from my floaty phase in 1984 at Oxford. Was I planning to marry an English country squire? God knows.

And yet, I am not ready to Marie Kondo my past and just throw out these clothes. I once cherished them and used them to create a persona–however ill-conceived that persona might have been. And however much I hate to admit it, I could stop eating entirely for three months, living on fruit-flavored water. I would never be able to shoehorn myself into those dresses again. That’s not the point!

I need a stiff gin and tonic. 

Wednesday, 10.30 am

Revisiting the outfits of yesteryear triggered me big-time. I had big hair flashbacks all night. Also, I am worried about my lack of paper products. I’m running low on Kleenex, too. What if I have to go to the store, with all those people, breathing everywhere?

Horrors.

I must stay calm, so today, I will remain resolutely in the kitchen, a place of endless possibility and unlimited butter (I stocked up back in April). I refuse to perform the ritual COVID-19 sourdough thing. I don’t like sourdough. I shall make a pound cake. Slowly. Voluptuously. With 8 eggs, a cup and a half of sour cream, and extra Mexican vanilla.

Roberts nixed the sourdough trend and instead opted for a sumptuous pound cake. Photography by Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

Thursday, 8 am

I shall immerse myself in the solace of nature, this time in daylight–insofar as I can do that looking out of my windows (because I ain’t going anywhere, even my own backyard, where that ‘rona might be hiding). Since I ate half yesterday’s pound cake, I figure it would be a good idea to jog in place at each window, you know, get in a little cardio.

The pair of hawks who live near the top of my tallest pine are out early catching a thermal high up in the pale lavender sky out my dining room windows. A pileated woodpecker hammers on the dead cypress I tell people I left standing just for him, though I was really just too cheap to cut down. Down below, a brown thrasher works the grass beyond the rose bed, looking for some eats, then looks up, startled, and flies off. Maybe my running bugs him. I trot to the kitchen where out the window over the sink, a mockingbird perched on the top of a shrub that really, really needs pruning, is having a loud argument with another mockingbird.

The French doors in the living room provide a lovely view of the backyard, where the sweet basil I potted in early May is completely riotous, the pansies of winter stone cold dead, but the wave petunias so ominously vigorous they’ve spread all over the sidewalk. I try getting my knees up higher as I jog in place, gazing at the four bird feeders. A chatty squirrel swings back and forth on the one sold to me as “squirrel proof,” a disappointed-looking gray warbler sits on the perch of another. They’re all empty. I really should put on my mask and gloves and take some seed out there. I mean, birds don’t carry the ‘rona, do they?

Crinums live pretty much forever. I don’t know about you, but in these plague days, I find that pretty comforting.
— Diane Roberts

On the upside, my pale pink crinum lily has a bloom on it the size of a wheelbarrow. Some people call crinums the swamp lily or the cemetery lily, what with it liking wetlands and being planted in old grave yards. Crinums live pretty much forever.

I don’t know about you, but in these plague days, I find that pretty comforting.

Sunday, 11 am

Culture. I am touring the gallery also known as my dining room, a small but eclectic collection. Over the fireplace, we have a number of historic photos, including my mother in her wedding dress (a Dior New Look knock-off with a huge skirt and tiny waist taken at the First Presbyterian Church of Chipley, Florida in 1954, my grandfather in his World War I uniform, a sepia-toned close-up of a mule, probably one of the mules my father’s family used in a doomed effort to plow a field in Wakulla County, and one of my great-grandfather with his daughter Caroline sporting a huge bow in her hair, his son John, a fat baby holding one end of a rope, and a resigned-looking dog on the other end of the rope. It’s a fascinating insight into a family too committed to the state of Florida to ever leave—that or too damned lazy.

On the walls, there are two paintings by somewhat well-known folk artist Benjamin Franklin Perkins: one a county by county map of Alabama in bright M&M’s colors, one a depiction of peacocks called, for some reason, “Cherokee Love Birds.” The peacocks, perched on something invisible, hang their tails down in a way I suspect no live peacock would enjoy, with the eye-feathers pointing forward.

Studying my eclectic collection, strangely draws me to the window seat and the cupboard under my china cabinet. When did I last look in there? Why can’t I remember?  Why is that cupboard calling to me? There might be insects in there, for God’s sake.

I must get a grip. I switch on the Maglite. I open the lid of the window seat cupboard, slowly. It creaks like the Addams Family’s front door. And there, under a lattice of cobwebs, treasure—unimaginable treasure. It comes back to me: these precious objects were stashed away just before Hurricane Michael in 2018 when we lost power in North Florida for at least a week and the stores were bereft of everything that makes human existence bearable. A pack of S.Pellegrino water, four cans of tuna, an unopened bag of Hershey’s miniatures, a wealth of batteries (C-cells, D-cells!), and there, untouched by time, three packages of Cottonelle. Thirty-six double rolls.

I am rich.

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